PHILADELPHIA — They walked through the dank hallway on Saturday evening, heads down, cleats clicking against the concrete, the silence deafening. A few yards away on the field, the members of the Navy football team were being presented the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy by Vice President Biden, drinking in the cheers from the Navy fans who didn’t want to leave Lincoln Financial Field until they were absolutely certain the trophy was returning to Annapolis.
Trent Steelman was one of the last Army players to walk up the tunnel, in large part because so many Navy players and coaches stopped him for a hug, a handshake or a word of encouragement after the playing of the alma maters. One of the first to find the Black Knights senior quarterback was Navy Coach Ken Niumatalolo, who told him: “You’re as tough as any player I’ve ever competed with or against. I’m proud of you.”
For the first time in a long time, Army had a lot to be proud of in an Army-Navy game. Not only had Navy beaten the Black Knights 10 straight times entering Saturday, the Midshipmen had done so by a combined score of 349-112. A year ago, Army lost by single digits for the first time during the streak. Saturday, the Black Knights led in the fourth quarter for the first time since their last win in 2001.
They also had a real chance to win — in fact, the case can be made that they should have won.
“I feel like we should have won,” Steelman said softly, his eye black staining his face because of the tears he had shed in the final seconds. “I thought we deserved that game in every possible way.”
Except for the final score: Navy 17, Army 13. The last play of Steelman’s career was a fumble with a little more than a minute left in the game and Army on the Navy 14-yard line with a first down. Steelman turned to hand the ball to fullback Larry Dixon and something went horribly wrong. Dixon never got control of the ball as Steelman put it into his stomach and Navy’s Barry Dabney was on it a split second before Steelman, seeing the ball on the ground, could dive on it.
“I’m honestly not sure what happened there,” Steelman said. “Simple triple-option play. No way am I going to put something like that on Larry, so put it on me.”
Of course he would say that because that’s what academy players do. “No excuse, sir,” is the first thing you are taught as a plebe.
It can be argued that no one who has played in this game has lived up to that credo more than Steelman. He has been Army’s starting quarterback for four years and has helped bring the program back to respectability — which may sound difficult to believe at the end of a 2-10 season, but it’s true. The year before Steelman and Coach Rich Ellerson arrived, Army lost to Navy, 34-0, and it wasn’t that close. The Black Knights beat Air Force at home this year for the first time since 1996 and, much like this game, were agonizingly close in several of their losses — including a 42-41 loss to Orange Bowl-bound Northern Illinois, when a missed extra point was the difference.